Zoom In

Last week we used the Maharsham to take a look at some large scale phenomena, especially cultural boundaries. Now we’re going to zoom in on some of the things we noticed that are going on within those boundaries.

One of the major questions we are trying to help answer with this project is whether rabbinic authority can be quantified. Can we use metrics to give a sense of how important Maharsham is? And if so, how?

We have already looked at number of responsa and geographical spread. Those are important data. But are all responsa created equal? If a gabbai asks a rav whether the congregation should skip tachanun on Erev Tu BiShvat, and the rav sits down and writes a lengthy treatise in response, does it really tell us anything about his authority? There are certain types of questions that demonstrate real influence. If people carry on Shabbat based on an eruv approved by a particular rabbi, over and against competitors, it indicates authority. The higher the stakes, and the more lives the question affects, the more important the responsum, and the more authority demonstrated by the responding rabbi.

Let’s take a more concrete example. Through volume 8 of Igrot Moshe, there are 1805 published responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (RMF). Of those, 48 are written to Rabbi Yaakov Kantrowitz (h/t Michael Pitkowsky). R. Kantrowitz was hardly submitting to RMF’s authority, as he was at least 20 years older than him. Moreover, almost all of these responsa are what we might call “recreational”. These are not responses to halakhic questions, but long letters written by a severely underemployed rabbi in the early years of the Soviet Union (there is not much for a rabbi to do when religion is effectively banned). These 48 responsa to not evince much rabbinic authority.

As for spread, RMF’s responsa are very clustered. He runs up his score in particular cities and with particular people–about 90 are to Memphis (mainly to Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt), for instance, or 5% of the total (we’re still working on quantifying how many to NYC, and whether to count different boroughs as different cities, but we will get there).

Note just how many questions the top few generate – there are 318 by the top ten alone.
Top questioners in Igros Moshe. [Click to enlarge.] Note just how many questions the top few generate – there are 318 by the top ten alone.
Now let’s go back to Maharsham. Of more than 1600 responsa, very few are “recreational.” They are all based on real, practical questions. Moreover, the top destination is Krakow, which received 29. In total, he wrote to 437 different places (out of the 1427 addresses we’ve identified). That is simply a mind-boggling number. And no more than 2% of his responsa come from any one place or person, except perhaps for his hometown of Berezhany. Nothing like RMF’s 5% to Memphis.

The point of this exercise is not to minimize the greatness of RMF. Rather, it is to show what a big deal Maharsham was, and he was a Big Deal. This has largely been forgotten over the course of a century of Lithuanian supremacism. Hundreds of community rabbis from hundreds of communities asked him their questions. His influence in his time and place was massive. There’s even a book called Maharsham: The Last Posek.

Yet for all his influence, there are certain places that his authority simply did not penetrate.

Drohobych was a huge Galician community in Maharsham’s later years. In 1910 it had over 15,000 Jews. Yet Maharsham addressed not a single responsum there. It’s not due to a regional lack of influence–he has 19 responsa to Stryi, which is less than 20 miles away and two-thirds the size. Another glaring hole is Przemyśl (Pshemyshl in Yiddish; vowels are overrated). Przemyśl’s Jewish population was slightly larger than Drohobych’s. Again, there’s no broader regional absence, as many nearby villages and towns have responsa addressed there, yet the big city is missing.

A final example: On the eve of WWI, the community of Sighet numbered c. 8,000 Jews–a sizable community–while nearby Bychkiv had just over 1,000. Yet only 5 responsa were addressed to Sighet, while seventeen were addressed to Bychkiv. In contrast to the other examples, Bychkiv is punching well above its weight.

We can posit explanations for the three cities with low (or nonexistent) numbers. Przemyśl was the seat of Rabbi Yitzchak Schmelkes, author of Beit Yitzhak and probably Maharsham’s main rival in Galicia in the generation after R. Yosef Shaul Natansohn. He was rabbi of Przemyśl for a long time, whereupon he was succeeded by his nephew and disciple. So Przemyśl remained under his “jurisdiction”, so to speak, even after his departure to Lviv.

As for Drohobych, we note that Rabbi Yitzhak Leib Sofer (1848-1907) was the city’s rabbi, and he had other influences: he was the son of Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (Ktav Sofer) and thus a scion of the greatest rabbinic family in Western Hungary. If anything, his presence in Drohobych indicates that the Sofer family’s sphere of influence was expanding into Galicia.

As for Sighet, by this time its rabbinate was firmly controlled by the Teitelbaum family.

To understand what’s going on here, we borrow a concept from astronomy. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) defines a planet as: “a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.”[1]

A major posek like Maharsham exerts a massive gravitational pull on the entire region. He vacuumed up the questions from hundreds of towns and villages in Galicia. However, there were a few cities whose rabbis “cleared the neighborhood”. They remained the dominant gravitational force in those cities. It seems that there were cultural institutions–like a family rabbinate, for example–that were able to resist outside influence, or individuals with enough authority. In turn, Galicia’s cultural identity and rabbinic tradition is powerful enough to clear its neighborhood and monopolize questions from within its territory, in contrast to regions like Volhynia and Podolia, which send a large chunk of their questions to Galicia. Another example of a city that cleared its neighborhood might be Prague, which seems to have sent very few questions elsewhere over an extended period of time.[2]

These observations are tentative. We need a lot more research before we have anything conclusive, but we would not have even known to ask the question without the data. And we think it holds promise.

For now, think of this post as a study aid and as a way to quantify (and appreciate) rabbinic authority. We will tweak the methodology as we have more data to work with and as we are able to use more advanced metrics and software. This is really just the beginning.

That, in turn, brings us back to a feisty little Carpathian town that punches above its weight: Bychkiv, to which we will return in the next post.

[1] For those wondering at home, Pluto lost planethood over (c).

[2] Expect more on this later, but, in short, we’ve come near completion on a few more poskim, starting from 1800 or so, and we’ve seen virtually nothing to Prague and fairly little to Czechia as a whole.